The UK is still lagging behind many other developed nations in skills and literacy levels, despite a major expansion in university graduates.
According to the ‘Education at a Glance’ report commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD), the number of working age people obtaining a university or college education has risen to 41 per cent. However, only a quarter of these graduates attain the highest levels of literacy, compared to 32 per cent of similarly-educated Australians and 37 per cent in Japan.
Another key point is the report’s criticism of the UK’s record of social mobility, despite recent attempts by UK politicians to improve access to higher education for students from poorer backgrounds. The study examines the number of adults who achieved better tertiary-level qualifications than their parents, with the UK measuring 15th out of 23, behind other developed nations such as Russia and France.
These problems in educational mobility appear to be mirrored across the rest of the OECD, with the number of 25-34 year olds attaining lower qualifications than their parents rising to 16 per cent. The report also notes the continued importance of parents’ educational background on attainment, with only 23 per cent of adults with low-educated parents attaining a tertiary qualification, compared to 65 per cent for those with at least one tertiary-educated parent.
It also praises the UK system for its balance between levels of access to students from all backgrounds alongside maintaining the financial viability of university for young people. Despite the cost of maximum £9,000 a year fees, the report argues that university remains an effective investment, with the career premium for graduates totalling around £155,000 and bringing in £80,000 in tax receipts for the government.
The organisation pinpoints the variable nature of further education courses in UK as providing an explanation for the skills gap amongst new graduates. Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the OECD, said: “Not all further education qualifications really deserve that name, because often those individuals are not actually better skilled than people who have just passed school.”
In addition, Schleicher argued that UK schools may play a significant role in the findings: “One of the things which may of course be true is that literacy and numeracy reflect things that you learn well before university. In Japan they build the foundations for literacy and numeracy at high school, and universities can build on this. It’s not true for the UK. This may be a reflection of this – universities assume those skills are there, but they might not be.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills told The Guardian: “This report reinforces the UK’s reputation as a true world leader in higher education, and confirms that a university degree is an excellent return on investment for the individual and for the country’s economic growth. However we cannot be complacent in the face of growing international competition.”